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Five Issues Threatening the Destruction of Cultural Heritage Sites

by Allison Meier on October 9, 2013

Country: Romania Site: Wooden Churches of Northern Oltenia and Southern Transylvania Caption: Repairs on the roof of the wooden church of Tarnavita Image Date: 2012 Photographer: Dan Cioclu/World Monuments Fund Provenance: Watch 2014 Nomination Original: from Sharefile

Wooden Church in Tarnavita, Romania (2012), one of the sites on the 2014 World Monuments Watch (photograph by Dan Cioclu/World Monuments Fund)

Yesterday, the World Monuments Fund announced their 2014 World Monuments Watch, launching a two-year advocacy for 67 sites in 41 countries. Since 1996, WMF has concentrated on giving national and international exposure to cultural heritage sites that are at risk, and while, as president Bonnie Burnham noted at the press conference, “each biennial group of watch sites seems to have its own dynamic,” the sites on the 2014 list represent many enduring issues of preservation, as well as the contemporary climate.

“Some are household names, some are struggling for recognition,” Burnham said, but she added that “inclusion will bring exposure that will help convince local communities how important they are.”

Ranging from as iconic a site as the St. Louis Arch to an overlooked mask-making tradition in Hong Kong to the entire country of Syria, the sites include landscapes, religious structures, and vernacular structures along with architectural sites, each selected from 248 nominations.

Below are five major issues highlighted by the 2014 Watch that threaten to destroy or irrevocably change the cultural landscape of the world:

War

Country: Mali Site: Heritage Site of Mali Caption: Mausoleum Alpha Moya destroyed in Timbuktu Image Date: August 2013 Photographer: Direction National du Patrimoine/World Monuments Fund Provenance: 2014 Watch Nomination Original: email from Brittany Brown

Mausoleum Alpha Moya destroyed in Timbuktu, Mali (2013) (via Direction National du Patrimoine/World Monuments Fund)

Ongoing violence in several locations is the reason for several sites being on the 2014 Watch. Most notably is the entire country of Syria where conflict has been putting some of their most significant sites, such as the historic architecture of Aleppo and the Crusader castle known as the Krac des Chevaliers, in danger, as well as previously untouched ruins where refugees have taken shelter. (WMF President Burnham recently spoke at the International Council of Museums’ releasing of The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects.) There’s also Mali, where the architecture and historic sites, including 16 of the mausoleums of Timbuktu already on a World Heritage Site (a separate listing that is a permanent designation from UNESCO), that were obliterated in a 2012 conflict. War, understandably, often shifts away focus from cultural preservation to more human dangers, but historic heritage after the conflict is an integral aspect to the recovery of a place.

Tourism

Country: Italy Site: Venice Caption: The current dangerous route of the cruises through the historic center Image Date: 2nd September 2009 Photographer: Pavlos Rekas/World Monuments Fund Provenance: 2014 Watch Nomination Original: from Sharefile

A cruise ship visits Venice in 2009 (photograph by Pavlos Rekas/World Monuments Fund)

Some places are just too popular for their own good, and perhaps the best example might be Venice. The entire city is on the 2014 Watch, having had its tourism go up 400% in just the last five years, with now an estimated 20,000 visitors each day at the height of tourism season, easily outnumbering the actual residents. The issue is most dramatically seen with the massive cruise ships that plow into the city, not just disrupting the waterways, but the whole character of the city as well. By being on the 2014 Watch, WMF hopes to encourage a balance between being a popular cultural site and open to visitors, while maintaining what they are there to see.

Development

Country: Romania Site: Great Synagogue of Iasi Caption: Exterior view--work halted 2009 Image Date: March 18, 2009 Photographer: Fedrom (The Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania)/World Monuments Fund Provenance: 2014 Watch Nomination Original: from Sharefile

Great Synagogue of Iasi (2009) (photograph via The Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania/World Monuments Fund)

Often coming alongside tourism, development is another threat to historic sites, with one particular place of concern on the 2014 Watch being the Hudson River Palisades. The land was purchased by the Rockefellers and set up as a preserved vista, yet rezoning laws for a new development project to build an 18-story headquarters for LG Electronics in Englewood Cliffs above the tree line threaten to totally alter the landscape. It’s one of those developments that may seem like a small change, or something inevitable with the continuous development of the New York City area, but the hope is that adding it to the list will give some recognition to its community support. A less visible threatened site is the Great Synagogue of Iaşi, the oldest Romanian synagogue, which has been hidden behind scaffolding after a long-abandoned 2008 construction project and has been left open to the elements, forgotten in the city where the Jewish population has declined and the building has been almost completely overshadowed by development. Rather than be changed, sites like this are in danger of being left behind entirely.

Ephemeral Value of Heritage

Country: Myanmar Site: Yangon Historical City Center Caption: Maha Bandoola Street. In our days, the destruction of historical testimonies of the past is a sad reality in Yangon. The lack of awareness about historical buildings further prompts the use of modern construction. Outreach activities among the local population are urgently needed before it is too late. Image Date: December 2011 Photographer: Christopher Davy/World Monuments Fund Provenance: 2014 Watch Nomination Original: from Sharefile

Maha Bandoola Street in Yangon, Myanmar (2011) (photograph by Christopher Davy/World Monuments Fund)

It’s often hard to give something as broad a term as “cultural heritage” a value, especially when an area is rapidly shifting. This is the problem in Yangon, Myanmar, where the city is quickly developing after recently coming out of their military dictatorship isolation. Like most of the world, development means sudden spires of glass and steel, and the historic city center of Yangon was nominated for the watch by a group of concerned locals who were interested in seeing the development better integrated into the existing city. There are also those “sites” that are even more fleeting and easily overlooked, like the gas lamps of Berlin that are on the 2014 Watch in response to the government plan to replace them with fluorescent lights, with an aim of showing that preserving the historic lamps could be just as economic.

Aging Modernism

Country: United States Site: George Nakashima House and Woodworker Complex Caption: Arts Building – Exterior View Image Date: 1/11/2008  Photographer: Paul Warchol/World Monuments Fund Provenance: 2014 Watch Nomination Original: from Sharefile

George Nakashima House and Woodworker Complex (2008) (photograph by Paul Warchol/World Monuments Fund)

Our 20th century marvels are already wearing down, and often they’ve been built with a now aging material that was once brand new, and we’re only now having to look at how to conserve it. Burnham also noted at the press conference that ”modern buildings don’t have the kind of protection that traditional ones do.” Listed on the 2014 Watch is the St. Louis Arch (aka the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial). Designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1965, it is now experiencing corrosion and is complicated to treat due to its soaring inaccessibility. The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, is also on the list as the buildings that Donald Judd set up as a permanent installation space are also deteriorating, and they are hard to repair without disrupting the art within. There are also private residences like the George Nakashima House in Pennsylvania, where repairs are complicated as even the type of plywood originally used is no longer made, and specialized craftspeople are needed to preserve the artist and architect’s vision that was at the time an experimental use of craft techniques in design.

Click here to view all of the sites listed on the 2014 World Monuments Watch. 

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  • Caroline

    and natural disasters

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